Low attendance shuts Chrysler classic car museum

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Love notes from visitors posted on a bulletin board read: “I love Chrysler, I love this museum!!! Please keep it”; “Mopar or no car,” and “R.I.P. Chrysler. . .You will be missed.”

Chrysler is not dying, but the Walter P. Chrysler Museum has closed its doors to the public. Its last day, December 30, coincided with the end of 2012. The spacious parking lot at the edge of the Chrysler campus in Auburn Hills was comfortably full and visitors were standing in line inside to purchase items in the gift shop.

A release on the museum’s website cites low attendance and explains that after 13 years of operation could not meet its own costs. It says that Chrysler “has stepped in to save the vast majority of the 67 cars and trucks housed in the collection.” Recent additions to the inventory will be curated by the Chrysler Foundation, the automaker’s charitable arm which earlier had curated the entire collection.

In the 55,000-square-foot museum its last public day, Christmas trees decorated in styles from decades past and standing near vehicles popular in those years filled the first floor. Concept vehicles, engineering feats and flagship cars were upstairs.

The lower level – “Boss Chrysler’s Garage” – displayed speed demons from the 1950s into the 1970s, plus an assortment of older, important cars and trucks that have figured in the history of the company.

Among the muscle cars in the garage was a Dodge that had participated in the Chrysler’s re-entry into NASCAR competition in 2001 in Daytona. It featured a Winston Cup 727-horsepower 358 with single four-barrel and mechanical fuel pump that had been quickly developed for the ’01 season. Dodge had been absent from NASCAR events for over 20 years. A Dodge won the Daytona 500 two years later, in 2003.

The “color me gone” slogan on the side of a 1964 Dodge 330 was to be taken seriously. The car is powered by a 500-horsepower 426 and which, with a Torqueflite three-speed pushbutton automatic took it a quarter mile in 11.7 seconds.

A gorgeous 1937 Chrysler Series C-17 Airflow with Syncro-silent three-speed manual transmission mated to an L-head eight with either 130 horsepower or 138 horsepower once sold for as little as $1,610. Museum information states that the C-17 included innovative safety features like instrument panels with no protruding knobs, padded front seat backs. Only 230 were built. Among the most beautiful cars in the museum’s collection, the ’37 Airflow is parked beside one of the most unusual: a 1932 Trifon experimental car, said to be among the earliest surviving concept cars. It was described as “original” except for fender repairs and painting.

The rose-and-creme Dodge La Femme from the mid-1950s, designed for women buyers, has been a perennial museum favorite,. The $143 La Femme option package included rosebud seat covers in 1955, a pink clutch purse complete with make-up items, cigaret case and lighter, plus a rain bonnet and umbrella.

The Le Femme was powered by a 183-horsepower overhead-valve V-8 coupled with a Power Flite two-speed automatic. The more masculine 1951 Chrysler Saratoga Club Coupe in the “garage” had the brand-new 5.4-liter Hemi with 180 horsepower as its power plant. This car, with some modification, went from the showroom of Horace Holly Motors in Abilene, Tex. to Mexico to compete in the 1951 Carrera Panamericana.

The museum says the car was driven by Clyde Johnson and Royal Russell, who had tire issues and only placed 11th in the event. The Chrysler was from Horace Holly Motors of Abilene, Tex., and was owned by Horace Holly until the Chrysler museum bought and restored it.

Chrysler’s famous Hemi bowed in 1951 and was available in the ’51 Chrysler Saratoga Club Coupe. It became the stuff of legends.

As for the museum, the latest word is that regular public visiting hours have been eliminated. However, the facility and vehicles likely will be used for Chrysler functions and possibly open to the public for special events.